- Jason King
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NASSAU, Bahamas -- The chants from VCU fans began as the final seconds ticked away in Thursday’s 78-65 victory over Memphis.
“We want Duke!” they screamed in unison. “We want Duke!”
As the war cry grew louder and louder, it was easy to imagine the Blue Devils turning off the game in their Atlantis hotel rooms -- and taking a collective gulp.
Duke will never cower to any team, especially one from a non-power conference. But even coach Mike Krzyzewski would have to admit that Friday’s showdown against VCU is a particularly tough matchup.
Especially now, with an injured star (Seth Curry) who usually needs two days off between games. And especially on a neutral court in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, with less than 24 hours to prepare for the Rams’ unorthodox, full-court defense, which is unlike anything the Blue Devils will see all season.
VCU forced 22 turnovers in Thursday’s win over Memphis, but that was hardly the only reason it got past the 19th-ranked Tigers. The Rams also made 13 of their 22 3-point attempts, continuously hitting dagger shots each time Josh Pastner’s squad threatened to seize momentum.
“They can win the whole national championship,” Pastner said, “if they continue to shoot the ball like that.”
For now, VCU would settle for a victory over No. 5 Duke, the team that so many experts predicted would play in the Saturday’s championship game against second-ranked Louisville, who will face Missouri in Friday’s other semifinal.
“Games aren’t played on paper,” VCU senior Darius Theus said. “We’ve got to go out and prove ourselves.”
The Rams did that and more against Memphis Thursday. Shaka Smart’s squad led 42-28 at intermission before the Tigers staged a second-half run that made things interesting. Still, each time Memphis pulled within one possession, VCU responded with an answer shot moments later on the other end.
A few examples:
Memphis made it a two-point game, 63-61, on a shot by Tarik Black with just under four minutes remaining. But VCU came back with a 12-0 run that put the game out of reach.
“Memphis is a great team,” Smart said. “When you play a high-level team like them, they’re going to make a run. You can’t expect it to be smooth sailing just because you go into halftime with a 14-point lead.
“This game reminded me of March. These are the kind of games that prepare you for March.”
Friday’s semifinal against Duke will likely have a similar feel. While it may be tough for VCU to maintain the outside shooting success it enjoyed against Memphis, it will definitely put forth the same kind of effort defensively and hope for similar results.
The Rams forced standout point guard Joe Jackson into seven turnovers. He played just 20 minutes before fouling out. VCU’s depth is one of the main reasons it's able to play at such a frenetic pace. Ten players saw double-digit minutes against Memphis.
Asked if fatigue could be a factor on one day’s rest, Smart said: “If you let it be, but the reality is that our guys are used to playing basketball several hours a day. They’ve played AAU basketball three or four times a day. This is what our guys live for.
“To have the opportunity to play Duke tomorrow at 7, if our guys aren’t energetic and excited about that, I recruited the wrong guys. I think they’ll be ready to go.”
The question is whether Duke will be ready. Curry scored 25 points in Thursday’s 89-71 victory over Minnesota, but his chronic leg condition makes it difficult for him to play on back-to-back days. Krzyzewski said he wasn’t sure if Curry would play against VCU.
Also, as good of a coach as Krzyzewski is, it’d be difficult for anyone to prepare for VCU on such short notice, simply because the Rams’ style is incomparable to any other team the Blue Devils have faced, not just this season, but last year, too. It’s also hard to simulate in practice.
Smart, however, said he doesn’t have any doubt that the Blue Devils will be ready.
“They’re extremely physical, as physical as any Duke team I’ve seen in a long time,” Smart said. “They blow up all your cuts and they’re physical on your drives. We’re going to have do a really good job of playing with toughness and playing through physicality. On our defensive end, we’re going to have to block guys out. [Mason] Plumlee had his armpits on the rim several times today. We’re going to have to match him with toughness and physicality.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for us. You’re talking about arguably the best program in the nation and certainly, more than arguably, the best coach of the modern era.”
A victory Friday wouldn’t mark the first victory for VCU over the Blue Devils. It was only five years ago, in 2007, when Eric Maynor hit a game-winning pull-up jumper to upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Until our Final Four run [in 2011], that was the most significant shot in VCU history,” Smart said. “Hopefully we can come out and play well against them again.”